Wegman plagiarism case: GMU jury out to permanent lunch

by John Quiggin on October 7, 2011

It’s been eighteen months since George Mason University began an investigation into allegations of plagiarism by Edward Wegman and his co-author Yasmin Said. Wegman and Said became famous for writing, at the invitation of anti-science Republican Joe Barton, an attempted takedown of the work of Mann and others on the “hockey stick” increase in global temperatures observed over the 20th century. Along with the statistical “analysis’, the report included a ludicrous foray into network analysis. Unfamilar with the field, Wegman and his co-authors cribbed extensively from Wikipedia, something that has turned out to be common pattern in his work.  They were silly enough to submit it for publication in a journal with a friendly editor, leading to a highly embarrassing retraction.

Now there’s yet another piece of Wikipedia cribbing, reported by Dan Vergano in USA Today, with more from Andrew Gelman and Deep Climate who, along with the redoubtable John Mashey, have done most of the hard work in this case

The big question is how long GMU can keep on getting away with doing nothing. They ignored a critical editoral in Nature in May, and it looks as though they will keep on doing nothing unti some external agency forces them to move (or perhaps Wegman will decide to retire and render the case moot for them).

There’s a broader point. On the evidence here, Wegman has single-handedly made more ludicrous errors and committed more violations of academic ethics than the total of all the allegations made against the climate science profession (the vast majority of which have been proved false). His work has been demolished at all points. Yet this has barely moved the faith of his allies in the  anti-science movement or the Republican party more generally.

At this point, any assumption of good faith on the part of climate “sceptics” is unwarranted.  They  either people who believe what they want to believe, regardless of evidence, or say things they don’t believe because it suits them politically. Either way, there is no point in reasoning with them or seeking compromise. Our only hope is to outvote them.

{ 64 comments }

1

Rich Puchalsky 10.07.11 at 3:49 pm

I “crib” from Wikipedia (well, with a link) for blog comments. If only I’d known that I could have been writing scientific papers instead.

2

J. Otto Pohl 10.07.11 at 3:56 pm

Yes, and if you plagiarize your thesis you can be defense minister of Germany.

3

Watson Ladd 10.07.11 at 4:27 pm

Seems like this creates the need for an external group maybe of publishers to investigate plagiarism and misconduct.

4

Tim Worstall 10.07.11 at 4:52 pm

“It’s been eighteen months since George Mason University began an investigation”

Indeed, and it looks as if he’s guilty as sin. But as I noted in the thread about Hauser, why is GMU foot dragging when Harvard took three years to investigate Hauser and then another year to fire him?

And before….as JQ knows (because he’s read my book) this is nothing to do with any possible support by me for “climate deniers”. I’m just fine with the science that says it’s happening, it’s us causing it and we ought to do something about it. Heck, that’s the field my day job is in, getting the metals for people to do something about it.

So just restricting the question to: how long do these academic enquiries normally take? I’ve only two data points and from those two that I have it doesn’t look like GMU is being slow.

5

John Quiggin 10.07.11 at 5:03 pm

@Tim: The Hauser case was far more complex, involving arguments about alleged misuse of data, initially denied by Hauser. The first retraction, as far as I can tell, came at the end of the investigation in August 2010, and Hauser went on admin leave straight after that.

In this case, Wegman has already retracted one paper, and is dead to rights on four more. He ought, at the very least, to be on leave. Really, how long can it take to compare blocks of text, when the work has already been done.

6

tomslee 10.07.11 at 5:19 pm

The big question is how long GMU can keep on getting away with doing nothing

They don’t need to do anything, the market will do it for them.

7

Barry 10.07.11 at 5:40 pm

“The big question is how long GMU can keep on getting away with doing nothing”

As long as Koch money pours in.

8

djw 10.07.11 at 7:19 pm

At this point, any assumption of good faith on the part of climate “sceptics” is unwarranted

At this point? Yes, the assumption is unwarranted, but it was unwarranted in the mid-1990’s and more or less every point since.

9

Ted Kirkpatrick 10.07.11 at 7:50 pm

Even if Wegman retires, it won’t “render the case moot”. At GMU, there would remain issues with several doctoral theses done under his supervision, as well as the question of whether any of the questionable articles or questionable supervision was performed under the sponsorship of federal grants. Over at Wiley, there remains the questionable editorial process at WIREs: Computational Statistics, for which Wegman and Said constitute 2/3 of the editors-in-chief. And finally, and most important of all, there remains the report and testimony provided by Wegman and Said (with Scott) to Congress. Wegman’s employment is just a small part of what has to be addressed. Also worth asking who else might have helped or enabled all this …

10

mpowell 10.07.11 at 8:09 pm


At this point? Yes, the assumption is unwarranted, but it was unwarranted in the mid-1990’s and more or less every point since.’

I feel like there was a blog post about this up around here 3-5 years ago. Announcing that this was the day that climate sceptics should start to be regarded pretty poorly. It’s kind of an amusing game to play, although to be fair the judgement being issued here is a lot more severe than what I remember last time around, so maybe there is a rational arc involved. I am not a climate scientist, but I think the case on global warming although it was pretty strong in the 90s, still left room for people to say, “well, I think we need to investigate this further before we reach a definitive conclusion”. And that was technically true, though then you get to the question of whether we should be doing anything about it and what the definition of a skeptic is. I think CT’s schedule on how we regard skeptics erred on the side of generosity, if anything, but hasn’t been that unreasonable on the whole.

11

Barry 10.07.11 at 8:42 pm

Adding on to Ted’s point, it’s clear that the administration and board of regents of GMU should be replaced. The top level of that university is corrupt (even compared with top leaders in general).

12

jim 10.07.11 at 9:56 pm

The President of GMU has announced his retirement. There’s a current search running for his replacement. It would not be unlikely that the Provost would want to at least discuss the Wegman case with the incoming President before taking action.

Barry @11: Members of the Board are appointed by the Governor. Virginia currently has a Republican Governor, so improvement of the Board is unlikely in the short term. At least Ed Meese is no longer Chancellor.

13

piglet 10.07.11 at 10:14 pm

“Yes, and if you plagiarize your thesis you can be defense minister of Germany.”

I’m glad you mentioned this because the cases of both Guttenberg and Koch-Mehrin (and there was at least one other case but the name eludes me) show that GMU’s cavalier attitude to plagiarism doesn’t have to be the norm. Interestingly, US media found it somewhat bizarre that Germans make such a fuss about politicians’ academic misconduct.

14

bh 10.07.11 at 10:26 pm

GMU’s straddled the line between legitimate research institution and highbrow Fox News for years. I know that plenty of legit scholars have worked there, but I pretty much see an invisible asterisk next to research coming out of there. There’s just been too much of a concerted effort by its funders to put forward a particular agenda to think otherwise.

15

bh 10.07.11 at 11:11 pm

Mpowell @ 10:

What you’re saying is literally true — research on Global Warming has become more definitive over time. It leaves out something important, though, about the response of so-called ‘skeptics.’ If an estimate as unbiased, even if it has a relatively large error range, you should be considering the high and low scenarios. There’s really no defense of just looking at one side of the distribution and planning around that.

Of course, there’s an Everest-high mound of bullshit claiming that the studies are biased due to corrupt researchers or the ‘protest industry’ or whatever. But back in the real world, current measurements are coming in worse than predicted by earlier models. We seem to be living through the exact scenario that ‘skeptics’ told us to ignore.

16

ezra abrams 10.07.11 at 11:48 pm

can someone tell me why journals don’t autocheck the text or word file from the author against wikipedia ?
maybe a market for a software guy there…
(actually, isn’t there some guy who is doing this already, running large parts of the science literature against wiki and other sources, looking for plaigarism ?)

17

John Mashey 10.08.11 at 1:15 am

1) Of the three deadly sins of FFP (falsification, fabrication, plagiarism), the FFs are far harder to detect, prove and explain to a non-expert audience. P can be hard to detect, but once found, is trivial to display, especially after we added the color to the side-by-side format. (I conjecture that readers check the identical-cyan blocks, see that they are identical, and then ignore them to focus on the minor changes (yellow). There are probably some papers to be done by cognitive psychologists. I do know that I’ve found errors and problems only after doing the coloring, because the real changes then leapt out.)

For those unfamiliar with FFP, see PDF @ SFWR, which gives some of the simplest examples of FF from the Wegman Report, highlighted in red.

p.4 Wegman Report text
p.5 WR with cyan&yellow for plagiarism
p.6 WR with cyan&yellow, then adding red for errors/falsification

It is sometimes hard to tell accidental FF from serious incompetence, whereas massive plagiarism is different. Hence SSWR covered the massive numbers of errors, distortions, etc in the WR (of 91 pages, only a few were problem-free), and in fact, only about 25% of the pages were on plagiarism, and those mainly to show the side-by-sides. Most of the discussion was on other topics, but ti was complex. It took more months to do SFWR, but plagiarism helped show the FF. When it is clear someone copied text, their changes leap off the page.

2) As for duration, see SIGMU.
GMU broke their own rules fairly thoroughly.

Rice U handled the *same* complaint in *9 days*. Now, that was simpler, because Scott quickly showed that Wegman had taken responsibility – Scott had written only the 3-page math appendix. But it does show that a credible university acts quickly for something so obvious. This had to have gone from President to VP Research within a day or two, because plagiarism was not in question, only who did it. I applaud Rice for acting with honor, integrity and alacrity.

18

John Mashey 10.08.11 at 1:34 am

In this case, it is not just GMU but Wiley. See my comment at Andrew Gelman’s blog. It is really incomprehensible that it took 5 months to fix Yasmin Said’s false affiliation with Oklahoma State U. They’d already gotten a link to DC’s analysis of Wegman & Said(2011) in March. This note didn’t have the side-by-side details, but seemed like it should have been enough.

Of course, I have never heard of case in which 2 of a journal’s editors write error-plagued/massively-plagiarized articles for their own journal. Maybe someone else has, but this is “strange” almost belief.

Still, their lawyer Milton Johns says:

“Neither Dr. Wegman nor Dr. Said has ever engaged in plagiarism,” says their attorney, Milton Johns, by e-mail. ”

That is *after* the CSDA retraction was committed and months after Vergano’s article quoting 3 experts.

19

John Mashey 10.08.11 at 6:12 am

In the US, there is an entity called the Office of Research Integrity. It has teeth.
It debars (health-related) researchers, typically for 3 years, and Yasmin Said ACk’d a health contract on the CS&DA paper.
Debar = no Federal research contracts, period, not just health.

Both Said & Wegman Ack’d Army contracts.

ORI says:

“Who can be debarred?

Both individuals and entities may be subject to debarment. In the area of grant and cooperative agreement supported research, this includes anyone who participates in the research: the principal investigators, researchers, contractors, students, and technical and support staff. To date, all ORI debarments have involved individuals, not institutions or other entities.”

Institutions have to follow certain rules in reporting to ORI. Outside, one cannot know if GMU has done so. If they haven’t, at some point they will be in trouble. No one messes with ORI. Academic friends shudder at the idea. Of course, debarring GMU is an institutional death sentence, so that likely wouldn’t happen, but something short of that, who knows? SIGMU p.17 lists people who must have been involved in this.

20

SusanC 10.08.11 at 9:45 am

can someone tell me why journals don’t autocheck the text or word file from the author against wikipedia ?

My University does use software for detecting plagiarism in student essays and coursework–here, plagiarism detection is highly automated.

The journals and conferences I review papers for have less automation, but they do reject a substantial number of submissions for plagiarism. (i.e. most plagiarised research is caught by the reviewers/editors — the public only sees the ones that slip throught the net). Part of the reason for not using quite so much heavy-duty automation at the research level is that if the paper is any good, the reviewers ought to have read it when it was first published, and recognize a copy. Quite likely, the actual author of the plagiarized paper will be chosen as a reviewer for the plagiarized copy.

The danger is with “marginal” papers, where the review is basically “Yawn! The results presented in this paper are of little interest, but at least the calculations aren’t actually wrong.” (Possible phrased more politely. Or not, depending on how the reviewer was feeling). The danger is that one of these marginal papers has actually been published somewhere before, but the reviewer hasn’t read it because the result was of no importance.

I think jourals are starting to use more automatic plagiarism detection, because it’s becoming needed.

21

Barry 10.08.11 at 11:42 am

jim 10.07.11 at 9:56 pm

” The President of GMU has announced his retirement. There’s a current search running for his replacement. It would not be unlikely that the Provost would want to at least discuss the Wegman case with the incoming President before taking action.”

Jim, good point about GMU and the GOP – it’s another data point to show that the right is incapable of *not* trashing institutions.

But as has been poined out, if GMU had followed it’s own rules, the investigation would have been over months ago – and that’s if it had taken the full allowed time. And it shouldn’t have taken the full time, because there’s a core of easily proven plagiarism. Other stuff might have taken longer, but GMU should have fired Wegman a while back. Instead GMU stalled it, with no good reason given. And even now, if they are waiting on consultation with the incoming president on an open-and-shut case of plagiarism, that’s not a valid reason.

22

Bill Benzon 10.08.11 at 11:51 am

On automated plagiarism detection, here’s a post I wrote about a peculiar miscarriage of the process: Lawyers Using Bots to Hassle Busy People, or: How I had to waste time giving myself permission to quote and paraphrase myself, really:

http://questioncopyright.org/lawyers_hassle_busy_people

23

Ano 10.08.11 at 11:53 am

At this point, any assumption of good faith on the part of climate “sceptics” is unwarranted.

This doesn’t seem like a scientific approach.

24

Barry 10.08.11 at 12:06 pm

Incorrect. When the overwhelming (99+% of the data) supports the theory, and data flows in from other fields supports the theory, and the very few reamining honest opponents of the theory have run out of legitimate quarrels, and are reduced to recycling disproven arguments, then that theory is accepted by science.

At that point, anybody challenging it legitimately and honestly has to come up with new data, strong new data. And nobody’s done that for how many decades now?

25

SusanC 10.08.11 at 12:20 pm

@Bill Benzon…

The concern was probably a bit excessive in your case, but editors and academic publishers do often care about “self plagiarism”, i.e. publishing the same thing in two different places. There are two concerns here:

a) Academics padding their CV’s by publishing the same thing twice under two different titles, to give the impression that they’ve done twice as much research.

b) Copyright. Typically, when a commercial publisher like Springer publishes an article, they sign a contact with the author that limits where the content can be republished (in the particular case of Springer, they’re reasonably open to negotiating contracts that let you, for example, republish on your web site, but the principle still holds). So if the same content ends up published in two venues, the concern is that the author is breaking the terms of their contract with one or both publishers. (And, that the second publisher isn’t going to get the sales they expect because potentially interested readers have already read it).

Prior publication in The Value looks OK on both grounds, but I can quite understand Questions Being Asked.

26

SamChevre 10.08.11 at 1:24 pm

I continue to be confused about this case.

I know plagiarism is academic misconduct; what I’m not clear on is what does it have to do with the results.

Falsification and fabrication change the results; they make the work entirely unreliable.

Plagiarism seems to be a “who gets the credit” issue; if I rebut an elementary mistake in someone’s work by quoting from a stats textbook, and represent it as my rebuttal, I’m taking credit for someone else’s work. But the rebuttal is still reliable.

So is the whole issue with Wegman that he took credit for someone else’s work, or is there something that makes his results unreliable?

27

tomslee 10.08.11 at 1:27 pm

I think jourals are starting to use more automatic plagiarism detection, because it’s becoming needed.

Turnitin has its own issues: see here. Producing algorithms that cannot be relatively easily gamed is very difficult when the incentives line up this way.

28

Gareth Rees 10.08.11 at 1:49 pm

Sam: plagiarism enables an author to represent himself as an expert in the subject when he is not. If Wegman is really an expert, then he would have been able to write his own background material. The fact that he chose to copy casts doubt on his expertise, even before we start looking at the way he falsified his sources.

29

Gareth Rees 10.08.11 at 2:11 pm

Plagiarism casts doubt on Wegman’s scholarship. If he is willing to ignore one ethical standard, then it makes it more likely that he will ignore others. If he can’t be trusted not to plagiarise his sources, how can he be trusted not to falsify them?

Plagiarism also makes it easier to falsify a source. An author who quotes a source must indicate elisions, and distinguish his own conclusions from those in the source. Plagiarising enables elisions to be hidden, and the source to be altered. John Mashey’s “Strange Falsifications in the Wegman Report” documents how Wegman plagiarised a section on tree rings from Bradley in such a way as to undermine the conclusions of the original. Thus Bradley’s “If an equation can be developed that accurately describes instrumentally observed climatic variability in terms of tree growth over the same interval, then paleoclimatic reconstructions can be made using only the tree-ring data” is replaced by Wegman’s “Thus tree ring proxy data alone is not sufficient to determine past climate variables” with no indication from Wegman that he is contradicting his source.

30

John Quiggin 10.08.11 at 2:27 pm

Among other things, plagiarism implies a spurious claim to expertise. Wegman’s network analysis was nonsense, as even a non-expert like myself could see at a glance. His report on Mann amounted to a series of negative judgements based on his self-presentation as an independent expert, which evidence of dishonesty casts into doubt.

Although it’s hard to prove (there is some evidence but not conclusive) it’s obvious to anyone who knows how these things work that the entire report was a put-up job, and that Wegman was recruited by one of his friends at GMU (the initials FS come to mind) as someone who wasn’t (at the time – he’s come out openly since) publicly identified as a denialist but could be trust to come up with the right answer.

31

Johnny Pez 10.08.11 at 2:45 pm

The big question is how long GMU can keep on getting away with doing nothing.

Until the rising sea level floods Fairfax County, Virginia.

32

wilfred 10.08.11 at 3:45 pm

Ok, here’s a question. Wikipedia raised serious questions about the meaning of scholarship. I’m of the generation that hunted down bound journals in the bowels of the University library only to find said volume had the desired article ripped out. This after wating days for an ERIC search to locate the article in the first place.

Forgetting for a moment the standard amongst academics. What about students? What, EXACTLY, does it mean to spend years mastering a relatively esoteric academic area only to find out that someone can ‘google’ it and cut out the hours your spent prowling around libraries or counting your pennies in some used bookstore, angsting about whether that book was worth the expense, or if anyone would notice you ripping out the odd page or two?

33

John Mashey 10.08.11 at 4:13 pm

JQ:
“Although it’s hard to prove (there is some evidence but not conclusive) it’s obvious to anyone who knows how these things work that the entire report was a put-up job, and that Wegman was recruited by one of his friends at GMU (the initials FS come to mind) as someone who wasn’t (at the time – he’s come out openly since) publicly identified as a denialist but could be trust to come up with the right answer.”

1) We have strong evidence that Wegman was recruited via Jerry Coffeey, a VA Tea Party friend of his fond of Singer, Michaels, etc. See CCC p.115. Yasmin Said revealed this in that foolish 2007 seminar she gave, whose file suddenly disappeared summer 2010, and whose mention in the seminar list was edited away.

2) I think the evidence for a put-up job is by now overpowering, which is why SSWR grew to 250 pages. But, in particular, see pp25-32, that go through the chronology and people involved.

Also, see pp.89-95 on Modified and disappeared files.

Finally, see Strange Tales and Emails p.17, which tracks how a raw PPT of a McInytre+McKitrick talk for George Marshall Institute got to Wegman via Joe Barton staffer Peter Spencer. That came out of FOIAs after SSWR.

34

John Quiggin 10.08.11 at 5:08 pm

@Wilfred
Wikipedia has certainly devalued the kind of expertise that relied on a detailed knowledge of hard-to-find facts. On the other hand, it doesn’t do much as regards understanding of complex issues. As I’ve found by trying it myself, it’s incredibly hard to write a really good explanation of a complex issue in encyclopedic format.

As you imply, the big problem is for students where we ask them to write a paper not because the product will have any social value but because the exercise will force them to learn about the subject. Provided you have some basic skills in paraphrasing, and are careful about giving your sources just enough credit, a passable paper of this kind can now be cobbled together with minimal effort from Wikipedia and the references it gives. The Wegman-Said pieces, purporting to be review articles are just like this in places, where they aren’t just cut and paste.

@JM I’ve followed the evidence you’ve collected on this – it’s enough to convince me, but I doubt that it would do the same for a friendly GMU inquiry panel. That’s why the plagiarism is so important, and why GMU has been unable to jump either way.

35

Matthew Ernest 10.08.11 at 7:25 pm

“So is the whole issue with Wegman that he took credit for someone else’s work, or is there something that makes his results unreliable?”

If previous work is being plagiarized rather than new work being done, no actual expansion is being made to the field of inquiry but cover is provided to those who claim that it has been expanded. This is akin to the “teach the controversy” people who are themselves creating the only controversy in evidence.

For example, one of the earlier cases was a “correction” to a bad analysis that claimed to refute global climate change. The “correction” seem to support the conclusion of the original work… except there was no “correction”. Not only was there plagiarism, it was plagiarism of wrong answers.

36

John Mashey 10.08.11 at 7:53 pm

@JQ
CCC and SSWR weren’t written to convince a GMU inquiry panel, they had multiple different intended audiences for future use.

But the main new issues from this one are *not* the plagiarism itself, which is obvious, but just one more on the chronology.

The issue is: what is going on with Wiley? We’re at 6+ months from the first report to them.

37

mclaren 10.08.11 at 8:23 pm

Wilfred asked: What, EXACTLY, does it mean to spend years mastering a relatively esoteric academic area only to find out that someone can ‘google’ it and cut out the hours your spent prowling around libraries or counting your pennies in some used bookstore, angsting about whether that book was worth the expense, or if anyone would notice you ripping out the odd page or two?

If you spend years doing the actual research in the stacks, it means you actually know what you’re talking about and can back it up with hard evidence and detailed citations from peer-reviewed journals.

People who cruise Wikipedia get what they pay for: zero. There is no assurance that any given Wikipedia article contains any actual verifiable knowledge, and there’s a lot of evidence of systematic bias in most (all?) Wikipedia articles introduced by facts edited out by a biased administrator and citations removed to slant the presentation.

Consider, just by way of example, the Wikipedia article on the Chicago School of Economics. This philosophy of economics has made predictions which have been comprehensively disconfirmed. This philosophy of economics has been so thoroughly debunked that it is no longer possible to describe it as a legitimate branch of economics: it’s now something closer to Dianetics. Yet look at the Wikipedia article of the Chicago School of Economics and you won’t find a word about how completely the Chilean experiment falsified the predictions of the Chicago School. You won’t find a word about how the predictions of Chicago-School-influenced economists leading up to and following the 2008 global financial meltdown were completely utterly 100% wrong. Most of all, you won’t find a single word detailing the many instances in which Chicago-School-influenced economists, having found embarrassing their false predictions of sky-high interest rates due to the Fed’s expansion of the money supply after the 2008 financial collapse, now cast about for arcane and outlandish second-order effects to explain with absurdly convoluted complexity what Keynes’ and Hicks’ IS-LM model simply and easily explains — and which Keynes’ and Hicks’ model predicted correctly in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crisis.

The world is dividing into lazy people who trawl the net and come up with junk science and economic just-so stories and foolishly parrot this nonsense, to their discredit…and hard-working people who hit the library stacks and do the actual research and come up with valid knowledge that actually works in the real world. Wikipedia is just one of many flash points in this schism.

38

Sebastian 10.09.11 at 1:38 am

I’d be super careful about using any branch of economic ‘predictions’ as an example here. So far as I can tell a huge problem with modern economics is that the complexity is so great that almost any economist at any time can claim that any particular result fits with their theory (properly explained of course). It just is not a science at this point.

39

wilfred 10.09.11 at 2:05 am

@John #34:
@mclaren:

Clearly there’s a difference between standards for an academic/graduate student and an undergraduate student. Having slogged through endless cut-and-paste jobs from students it seems to me that we are experiencing a kind of electronic epistemology, where process is trumped by product and superficial ‘knowing about’ something has replaced what an older generation called knowledge.

Some, most, of my colleagues march about harrumphing about student laziness, vapidity, etc., but maybe the real challenge is for us to find a way to accomodate this new epistemology. So the statues don’t have eyeballs, what now?

40

Tony Lynch 10.09.11 at 5:28 am

So: “Having slogged through endless cut-and-paste jobs from students it seems to me that we are experiencing a kind of electronic epistemology, where process is trumped by product and superficial ‘knowing about’ something has replaced what an older generation called knowledge.”

And so: “the real challenge is for us to find a way to accomodate this new epistemology.”

In Australia we have a name for this: “The preemptive buckle”.

41

Marc 10.09.11 at 1:14 pm

Wikipedia is not fundamentally different from relying on Cliff Notes or the like to write a book report.

The basic divide is between reading the primary sources and reading the interpretation of the primary sources provided by others. There is a role for the latter, but true expertise requires the former.

42

Ben Alpers 10.09.11 at 2:16 pm

@mclaren:

The world is dividing into lazy people who trawl the net and come up with junk science and economic just-so stories and foolishly parrot this nonsense, to their discredit…and hard-working people who hit the library stacks and do the actual research and come up with valid knowledge that actually works in the real world. Wikipedia is just one of many flash points in this schism.

@wilfred:

Having slogged through endless cut-and-paste jobs from students it seems to me that we are experiencing a kind of electronic epistemology, where process is trumped by product and superficial ‘knowing about’ something has replaced what an older generation called knowledge.

I think there are really two issues here that we need to separate: an unwillingness to seek out good sources and an unwillingness to get up from one’s computer and “hit the stacks.”

The truth is that there are now excellent, peer-reviewed online resources available in most fields. Undergraduates at major research universities have access to dozens of online journals. Much of what one could have only found by “hitting the stacks” fifteen years ago, one can now find delivered more or less instantly at your desktop….if you know how to look for it and are willing to put in the additional time (checking Wikipedia is still more attractive to the truly lazy).

On the other hand, there are other resources that are only available in the stacks. I’m an historian and serious scholarship in my field is still very centered around the monograph. Most books (particularly most new books) are not available online for free (though one can increasingly purchase electronic editions of them). And many primary sources are still not available online (though again it’s worth acknowledging that the number of books that have fallen into the public domain that are available online is truly astonishing…and if you’re willing to pay for it the world of popular music and film is also right there at your fingertips).

So I think that there are two challenges here when it comes to promoting undergraduate research skills. First, teaching undergraduates to get the most out of their online research, which actually can be very valuable. This involves, among other things, encouraging non-laziness, explaining what scholarly sources are, and giving them the knowledge necessary to find them. Secondly, they still have to be coaxed to “hit the stacks.” And the best way to do that is to highlight what they can find there that they cannot find online at all.

43

Ben Alpers 10.09.11 at 2:19 pm

I should clarify that when I referenced “online journals” above I meant not just true e-journals but, more importantly, electronic access to traditional print journals.

44

bob mcmanus 10.09.11 at 2:57 pm

37: I will defend Wikipedia. I am no scholar, and going thru Wikipedia will not get you a Phd level of knowledge, but if you use it well, it can lead to to “good enough” IOW, follow the links

The Wiki entry on “Chicago School of Economics” is part of the economics portal, links at the bottom can get you to “Chicago Boys”, “Berkeley Mafia”, Amartya Sen’s criticism, Jeffrey Sachs, Naomi Klein & The Shock Doctrine, and Michael Hudson. And I got those references in five minutes.

Anyone who finishes their search at the first page of a Wiki subject isn’t serious and won’t learn much. And anyone who criticizes Wikipedia based on one page on a subject is also not serious. Wikipedia is probably most useful as an aggregator and bibliographic tool, the door to the Greater Web 2.0

45

bob mcmanus 10.09.11 at 3:00 pm

It is also insane to demand that all public and citizen discourse on important issues of the political economy be of peer-reviewed original-source academic quality. I do not need to study reports of steel production in Chile in the 80s to hate the “Chicago Boys.”

Go to hell.

46

Ben Alpers 10.09.11 at 3:19 pm

@bob:

It is also insane to demand that all public and citizen discourse on important issues of the political economy be of peer-reviewed original-source academic quality. I do not need to study reports of steel production in Chile in the 80s to hate the “Chicago Boys.”

Indeed. But this post–and discussion–specifically focuses on varieties of academic work: journal articles like Wegman’s and student coursework. It’s fair in both cases, I think, to expect the kind of grappling with peer-reviewed academic sources than we might not reasonably expect from non-academic public discourse. (And I don’t think anyone is demanding that undergraduates produce peer-reviewed quality work, but merely that they consult it.)

47

bob mcmanus 10.09.11 at 3:56 pm

46: I think the academic web needs to determine who and what it is for. Discrediting Wegman among yourselves sort of misses the point. Wegman wasn’t writing with you as the intended audience. You need to write for Wegman’s intended audience in such a way that does not insult them. You need to gain some kind of authority and legitimacy with them, for they will not be able to sift the evidence, weigh the arguments, compare the credentials of competing references in the way you seem to expect them too.

Any discourse analysis that dismisses Wikipedia outright has really removed itself from the useful and influential discourse. Sorry.

Or y’all can just talk among yourselves. Sorry for trolling.

48

John Mashey 10.09.11 at 5:33 pm

1) I repeat what I wrote in CCC, p.6:

Sources – Websites, Wikis, Blogs
Wiki and many web pages here are never regarded as authoritative, just useful guides to authoritative references. They can be helpful introductions to new topics, and often summarize information not easily findable in any other single place. They are best employed to find references to credible sources, while carefully assessing opinions. This report already has ~900 URLs, and without Wikis that number would have been 5-10X larger. Sometime massive officia l documents (like foundation “990” forms) are only summarized in Wikis. I‘ve often referenced [Sourcewatch] pages, for example that name people who have at some time been associated with some organization. These pages are not always up-to-date, or complete, but have often been compiled over years. I‘ve often gone back to the original pages (or archives) and
checked them out. Likewise, I‘ve often checked out referenced sources in other Wiki‘s. The reader is invited to at least do sample checks. Please report errors, as this report may well be updated.

Field professional researchers tend to ignore truly awful journal papers, but sometimes good refutations exist only in blogs or other websites. Starting with a problematical article, peer-reviewed refutations can be hard to find, unless one subscribes to specialist journals or spends much money on articles behind paywalls. It is even harder to make this accessible for a wider audience unlikely to have free access to those journals. Hence, I have leaned towards carefully-selected websites with understandable explanations, based on peer-reviewed work, rather than exhaustive ly tracking specialist literature.”

2) Of course, one can never rely on Wikipedia, especially on contentious topics. There may be good research problems for sociology students in analyzing history pages of Wikipedia pages and especially their discussion pages, in which people of intense beliefs sometimes fight very had to cite weak sources they like, prevent inclusion of factual material they don’t like, etc. Wikipedia keeps *complete* histories.

For example, Edward Wegman is interesting, as is Hockey-stick controversy, but really fascinating is The Hockey Stick Illusion.

Not in the main page, but in discussion, I wrote serious problems (like falsification) in the text. Also, the key quote came from a dubious source, a journal that really has published on dog astrology.

In a discussion averaging 20 edits/day, this induced stunned silence for a day or so, followed be repeated efforts to remove the comment from the discussion (not the main page, the discussion), using various wrong interpretations of Wikipedia rules.

After this died down, people went back to arguing for inclusions of reviews by such people as business writers for local newspapers, thus deemed to be experts on paleoclimate research.

49

piglet 10.09.11 at 8:09 pm

I’ll second bob at 44. wikipedia is an astonishing resource and elitist disdain for the lack of academic quality is misplaced. As bob points out, wikipedia will almost always provide valuable links where the person searching for information can go deeper. Secondly, it usefully highlights controversies even if the account given may be biased. And, its plain factual statements (often on obscure topics that would be difficult to find elsewhere) are usually reliable. The bottom line of course is that schools and colleges are called on to educate students in the good use of online sources. I don’t think, speaking from my limited experience, that they are currently doing a good job. I found to my surprise that most students do not know how to look for information online, not even wikipedia. In my view there should be dedicated courses on that subject.

I personally make heavy use of online sources for teaching, including wikipedia. Part of the reason is that I can use current information where in earlier times, you’d have had to rely on text book statistics from ten years ago. I try to enable students to seek out up-to-date and accurate information about the state of the world and to use time honored scientific tools for interpreting these data.

50

Tom Atchison 10.09.11 at 8:26 pm

Combining two subjects that have come up in this thread:

Elizabeth Anderson has an article in the June 2011 issure of the journal Episteme, arguing that it should be easy for average citizens to make up their minds as to who is telling them the truth about global warming, because (to summarize crudely) a Google search on the term leads initially to a quite reliable Wikipedia article laden with references to authoritative sources, whereas the skeptical (or ‘denialist’) sites that come up are pretty obviously industry-funded and/or right wing think tanks. I’m not sure either side of this comparison is as obvious to the untutored as she says it is. [Also, BobMcManus, she has some interesting thoughts about how to make scientific information about global warming easier to hear for persons of a conservative disposition.]

But, perhaps ironically, her article is available online only to people who have paid for a subscription to the journal or who are part of a research library system much better than the one at my university. I had to get it from good old fashioned inter-library loan and it took days and days. Very recent issues of scholarly journals are much less widely available online than the back-issues. And this makes it harder for anyone who is not plugged into the right data-bases to have the ability to argue with those who are. Epistemic authority still comes partly from access to information not generally available to all, for better or worse.

51

Gareth Rees 10.09.11 at 8:39 pm

The Wegman case isn’t about elitist disdain for Wikipedia. Wikipedia is great, and by reading it you can quickly get a basic level of understanding of a subject area. But Wegman didn’t represent himself as someone with a basic level of understanding of climate science. He represented himself as someone capable of writing an expert Congressional report evaluating the work of Mann, Bradley and Hughes. The fact that large parts of the report were plagiarised (and not only from Wikipedia) undermines that claim to expertise.

52

Rich Puchalsky 10.09.11 at 9:10 pm

Yeah, mclaren’s comment at 37 is where the discussion gets derailed a bit. To back to the start, cribbing from wiki is perfectly appropriate if you’re writing a blog comment. It’s actually very valuable. People can be introduced to what’s generally agreed on very quickly, and if they don’t think that wiki is right, they are free to bring up some other source.

It’s not appropriate to crib from wiki when writing an academic paper. I think that everyone can agree on that without having to say that wiki is bad at what it’s supposed to be for.

53

Salient 10.09.11 at 10:12 pm

Bob et al, adding to what Gareth Rees said — John Mashey’s awesome SSWR (linked by JM above and by me here) spends approximately nil time pooh-poohing Wikipedia as a resource for the hoi polloi, and gets straight to the more important point–from the SSWR’s executive summary:

Of 91 pages [in Wegman’s report], 35 are mostly plagiarized text, but often injected with errors, bias and changes of meaning.

Three issues here.

Plagiarism is an acknowledgement of an upper bound on one’s own expertise. Setting aside questions of mere laziness, which do not obtain here, a plagiarist is implicitly confessing that they are not capable of synthesizing the information they are presenting as expertly as the source they are stealing from.^1^ The maxim “if they could have done better, they would have done better” applies. To plagiarize Wikipedia is therefore to admit that one is not capable of synthesizing the information one presents as well as a cursory explanation in a crowdsourced layperson-friendly encyclopedia. That encyclopedia might well be super awesome (and it is!), but we certainly would like for an allegedly expert report to achieve a greater upper bound of mastery, in depth and breadth of synthesized understanding, than a cursory summary in an encyclopedia contains.

This is why people are pooh-poohing Wegman’s use of Wikipedia. Plagiarizing from an expert source’s tremendously difficult original research would at least be implicitly acknowledging a very high ceiling over one’s expertise. “Can’t navigate my way through that argument as well as this person… but who could?” Plagiarizing from Wikipedia (or any entry-level resource) is effectively confessing to a very low level of expertise.

Plagiarism is evidence of dishonest intent. Setting aside the plagiarism concern, there’s still copious evidence that the Wegman report contains enough false statements and incorrect interpretations of data to completely compromise its theses. There are two plausible explanations for a report that fails this badly: either Wegman et al are well-meaning but terribly error-prone, or Wegman et al are deviously dishonest.^2^ The fact that Wegman et al plagiarized about a third of their material establishes one of those two explanations as likely, allowing us to place confidence in assertions like “Wegman intentionally misrepresented the information available to him in order to mislead Congress.”

The less complex a plagiarized source is, the greater freedom it provides the plagiarist to redirect arguments and manipulate conclusions.

Because the less-complex source speaks more broadly and with fewer technical caveats, it will inevitably elide some of the nuance details that support each conclusion it communicates. A plagiarist can exploit the ambiguity, with selective rephrasing and invisible elision, in order to produce conclusions that would be plainly at variance with the more complex (and therefore more technically specific and rigorous) expert source. Plagiarizing from a high-level original research source may not provide one with nearly so many opportunities to engage in that kind of manipulation, as the statements and inferences will be constructed more precisely, making it harder to systematically redirect the flow of the argument.

Even a well-intentioned plagiarist might accidentally produce a wildly divergent line of reasoning from a less complex source, accidentally eliding or obfuscating important technicalities, hedges, and qualifications, because the critical importance of the more technical caveats is inherently obscured by the simplicity of the source text. Therefore, plagiarizing from a less complex source is more worrisome, because of greater likelihood that the plagiarist’s text diverges meaningfully from the assertions of its source.

^1^Self-plagiarism being the exception that proves the rule, in the classical sense of that phrase: you plagiarize your own work when you can’t communicate the idea at hand any better now than you did back when you first wrote it.

^2^These are not disjoint categories, but it helps to consider them separately.

54

John Mashey 10.09.11 at 10:18 pm

(I had a longer discussion that seems to have been lsot, mabye to spam filter.)

But, again, the issue isn’t the use of Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles range from awful to excellent, and in case of Said & Wegman(2009), the Wikpedia articles were pretty good.

The problem was that it the article:
a) Used material without attribution, and mis-used references, almost certainly false citations that were never consulted. DC explained the pattern.

b) Generally made it worse, not better, in some cases with ludicrous errors obvious on first read. They could have produced a far better article on optimization simply by writing nothing more than:

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_optimization

c) But this way, they wrote an article for a peer-reviewed journal, and Wegman , at least listed it in his C.V. Numbers count!

55

Eli Rabett 10.09.11 at 10:33 pm

Just to circle the square, it turns out that denial is well practiced in the arts of self plagiarism, publishing the same article multiple times.

On another subject, it was interesting reading various claims for Wegman in the 2006 comments. Some have held up, others, not so muck. Eli is less inclined to blame folk like TCO, because the entirety of the fraud was not obvious then, but it is an object lesson in whom to trust.

56

John Mashey 10.09.11 at 11:25 pm

@53 Salient, thanks.
Note, earlier in CCC, p.6 I’d written:

“Sources – Websites, Wikis, Blogs
Wiki and many web pages here are never regarded as authoritative, just useful guides to authoritative references. They can be helpful introductions to new topics, and often summarize information not easily findable in any other single place. They are best employed to find references to credible sources, while carefully assessing opinions. This report already has ~900 URLs, and without Wikis that number would have been 5-10X larger. Sometime massive official documents (like foundation “990” forms) are only summarized in Wikis. I‘ve often referenced [Sourcewatch] pages, for example that name people who have at some time been associated with some organization. These pages are not always up-to-date, or complete, but have often been compiled over years. I‘ve often gone back to the original pages (or archives) and checked them out. Likewise, I‘ve often checked out referenced sources in other Wiki‘s. The reader is
invited to at least do sample checks.
Please report errors, as this report may well be updated.

Field professional researchers tend to ignore truly awful journal papers, but sometimes good refutations exist only in blogs or other websites. Starting with a problematical article, peer-reviewed refutations can be hard to find, unless one subscribes to specialist journals or spends much money on articles behind paywalls. It is even harder to make this accessible for a wider audience unlikely to have free access to those journals. Hence, I have leaned towards carefully-selected websites with understandable explanations, based on peer-reviewed work, rather than exhaustive ly tracking specialist literature.

57

cod3fr3ak 10.10.11 at 1:09 am

Tom Atchison@50
“easy for average citizens to make up their minds as to who is telling them the truth about global warming, because (to summarize crudely) a Google search on the term leads initially to a quite reliable Wikipedia article laden with references to authoritative sources, whereas the skeptical (or ‘denialist’) sites that come up are pretty obviously industry-funded and/or right wing think tanks.”
There is an assumption that everyday people use information the way scholars do. I don’t think so. For average people hearsay weighs more than anything on the untrustworthy “Internet”. I have a cousin that tells me that scientists around the would bury dinosaur bones and then dig them back up to prove evolution. She is not a moron. Its just that in her circle of friends their say weighs more than some paleontologist’s boring dissertation – from “The Ivory Tower”.

58

Alex 10.10.11 at 9:44 am

I’ll also agree with Bob. If I look up the Chicago School in an encyclopedia, I want to see what it was, what it believed, and who was involved before I get into denouncing it.

59

maidhc 10.10.11 at 10:22 am

Isn’t GMU an accredited university?

I’m acquainted with someone who teaches there in a non-controversial area, and from her descriptions it seemed like a fairly normal kind of university.

I would think that having faculty who are ethically challenged would raise a few flags the next time that accreditation came around.

Or are there areas that are such a political hot potato that accreditation committees don’t want to touch them?

If so, it’s a sad day for American academia. Tenure should protect people who pursue unpopular research–just think about someone who was researching developments in the USSR during the 1950s. But that’s different from committing fraud.

60

Barry 10.10.11 at 1:07 pm

Eli Rabett 10.09.11 at 10:33 pm

” Just to circle the square, it turns out that denial is well practiced in the arts of self plagiarism, publishing the same article multiple times.”

A good point, and one which might be an important indicator of fraud and deceipt. If one’s position is false, then it’s hard to gather good evidence and confirmation, so one is lead to reprinting variations on the old lies.

Which is a common theme of creationism and global warming denial.

61

John Mashey 10.10.11 at 2:00 pm

maidhc:
Yes, GMU is accredited.
Nature raised the issue in its editorial “copy-and-paste”:

“Perhaps it should fall to accreditation agencies to push for speedy investigations. Tom Benberg, vice-president of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools — the agency that accredits George Mason University — says that his agency might investigate if the university repeatedly ignored its own policies on the timing of misconduct inquiries. To get the ball rolling, he says, someone would have to file a well-documented complaint.”

As it happens, GMU’s usual scheduled accreditation review has been going on this year, with results due in December. Hopefully, they will perform better than GMU.

62

Anderson 10.10.11 at 8:37 pm

There is no assurance that any given Wikipedia article contains any actual verifiable knowledge

And what sources *do* provide that assurance?

Wikipedia is for grown-ups who aren’t expecting any source to be unimpeachable, and who gave up long ago on the idea of a magical Book of Answers.

63

sg 10.11.11 at 2:20 am

I find Wikipedia most useful for checking basic assertions that lie well outside of my field of understanding, and where necessary giving me links to sources. If someone makes a basic claim about a field I’m unfamiliar with, and the wikipedia entry seems to strongly disagree with the claim, then I’m on fairly solid ground investigating it further.

Wikipedia pages also often alert one to the existence of a controversy within a field of knowledge. Iris Chang’s Rape of Nanking is a good example. Not only does the wikipedia page point out dubious scholarship that it would take an expert on the topic to notice (e.g. the mis-captioned photos) but it also gives a reasonably good insight into the nature of academic debate about what happened in Nanking. I’ve got no experience of the study of history, so being able to check up on the contents and conclusions of a book like that is really useful. In fact, Wegman is already on the wikpedia page about the hockey stick, so it would be hard for someone checking his assertions to not notice what he’s been up to.

64

David 10.11.11 at 11:02 pm

@Ben Alpers, 42 (yes! the answer, if only we had the well formulated question): Good point. Much as I enjoyed venturing into the stacks at the UW library, it turned out that in most cases I could get the same stuff online and download it as a PDF. This should be perfectly acceptable.

Comments on this entry are closed.